The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Wednesday, 24 March 2010]

The Finger Of St John The Baptist And Other Seo Annoyances

Few things are as annoying as the braying of SEO sheep. This post explains why.

One of the more annoying things on the Web, especially among Social Media types, is the cult of Search Engine Optimization.

Gotta work on my SEO! Gotta find tips on SEO! Gotta find somebody who can tell me the secrets of SEO!

It’s like SEO is some kind of silver bullet that will catapult your site from obscurity into massive success overnight if you can just find the secret, the one all the prominent sites found and won’t share with you, the bastards.

Before anybody works themselves into a lather, let me state upfront that SEO by itself is a necessary thing—you create content, you want people to find it, and SEO is the free way to make the search engines find you. All good. And Google has published guidelines exactly on how to do that. Read that page. Boom. Now you know what you need to know. Follow that advice and you’re good to go. Feel free to send me outlandishly large checks now. Really. Because that link will tell you everything you need to know.

(If you’re interested in the mechanics of how Google ranks the Web, an excellent resource is the blog of Matt Cutts, head of the Google WebSpam team. In other words, he’s the guy in charge of making sure SEO trickery doesn’t work. And seems like a pretty cool guy, to boot.)

Where things run off the rails for the cult members is that they follow the advice Google gives and still don’t rank high enough for their tastes. Which must mean there’s a secret handshake only they know. It simply can’t be that my site isn’t useful, no-no-no-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you.

And this is where the most worrisome aspect of the cult of SEO rears its head—the cargo cult mentality and sheer amount of misinformation floating around in discussions similar to monks in the Dark Ages discussing the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin … guesswork and speculation, a frantic search for the capital-S secret coupled with a complete refusal to apply Occam’s Razor.

What Google’s search engine is trying to do is to match search queries with the most relevant information for that query. Really. That’s all it’s trying to do. Why? Because Google’s entire business hinges on their search engine doing that. If their search engine leads people to garbage, people will stop using it, and that will dry up the tsunami of money that washes over Google from ad sales. Google needs those ad sales. Everything else they do is a means to get those ad sales. And it’s worked out pretty freaking well for them.

(Not that I’m a Google fan boy. There are real and serious issues with some aspects of the way the company does business (China, privacy, the Asperger-ish over-reliance on algorithms, etc.) but when it comes to their bread-and-butter search, there are no hidden agendas and no secret insider knowledge that will magically boost your site. Really.)

So instead of turning to snake oil salesmen and late-night Kremlinology about “what is the algorithm,” how about you turn the lens around and ask yourself: Why would somebody want to come to my site? What relevant content do I have? What benefit is there for somebody to read my stuff? That’s the question you need to ask yourself, not “what minutiae of the algorithm can I find out and use to tweak things?”

So, once you’ve done the basic SEO craft as outlined by Google itself, do yourself a favor and plow all the time and money you’re wasting on SEO right now into creating more useful Web sites.

The next brown-robed salesman that darkens your door offering you the one and only finger of St. John the Baptist? Throw the bum out.

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